On seeing what is to be seen
Consciousness is a continuous act; it goes on at many levels both in a waking state and in sleep; it never stops, is always changing, always bringing up the same things in other forms, always cross-breeding images and creating new ones; experience is remolding us every minute. Fluency, and continuous change, is the dominant characteristic of our mental life: the flow, as William James said in a wonderful phrase, of the “free water” of thought. And yet, amidst all this flow, there are recurrent things, images, orientations, even in, or especially in, the thinking that goes on involuntarily, under the rational processes, and in sleep. The question here is not whether or not images arise and recur in this way, for they do, but what significance they have. They are, most of them, memories, or they are made from the matter given by memory, but they are something more than that: they are symbols: they are a kind of symbolic tapestry of our lives, of the most important and transfigured things in our lives, the incidents apparently of no importance at the time, now looming like fate.
The point I would make here is that so much of the mind is just chucked away, discounted, overlooked, junked. The real use of the imagination begins precisely with the recognition that this is happening: the recognition that all one’s inner life matters, from the most habitual modes of thought to the most secret, and the recognition that each of us carries within him his own symbolic drama, never completely understood, but always glowing with the potential of meaning, the meaning of life itself, of our life, of human life as we have known it, each from his own vantage point. That is why, just as one human being differs from another, each body of thought possesses its own life; it has its own particular laws and conventions, and its own necessities. What we want, I think, is a renewed consciousness of the importance of such an interior drama, and particularly of those portions of it that assert themselves—who knows how?—as the most interesting, the most pleasant, and above all the most essential, the most necessary, because they are what they are, because we are what we are. I think it is perfectly true to say that one may learn to know oneself, and in intimate and wonderful ways, by seeking out in memory certain moments in which one seemed to be living as vigorously and as naturally as possible: those moments that seem to be—that are—most firmly attached to one’s own nature, for whose living and whose remembrance one seems to have been made, moments to which one can cling, and around which one can recompose oneself. You can say to yourself, I believe, that I seek out this pattern of consciousness because I possess and have lived in and by certain moments; I prefer these joys and thoughts to others; it is by them and through them that I shall govern myself, if not in public, then certainly in secret; I take them as themes for my life.
When one does this, a curious thing happens. Though it is essentially an act of solitude, the feeling of aloneness and alienation is not the sense that is most present. Most men don’t live in their most central being, but all action should really stem from it, if we would be whole as human creatures. What we find there is not only ourselves, or the most necessary parts of ourselves, but others too: I think it is true to say that attention directed toward one’s greatest solitude can reach a point at which one senses the greatest solitude of others; you begin to understand others, not from the outside, where they are prepared to be understood, but from the inside, in the secret places, the secret ways, which are both like and unlike yours.
In order to reach this kind of solitude—this kind of communion with ourselves, and by extension, with others—we have to be capable of a kind of virginity, of a perpetual openness and receptivity to the things of our experience; literally nothing can be ignored. What happens, here, then, is a sort of entering, by choice, openly and awarely, with both the conscious and the unconscious kinds of awareness: a sort of entering into the kingdom of the Other, the thing that you see and is profoundly not you: the grassblade, the tree trunk, the door-knob, the glittering metal of the dentist’s tray of tools. Matter-of-fact people will have nothing to do, of course, with this kind of sheer contemplation of objects. Franklin P. Adams, better known in the thirties as F.P.A., once issued the man-on-the-street’s manifesto in this quatrain:
I see the business office,And I see the floor above it.I see and hear a lot of things.Suppose I do. What of it?
But there is seeing and seeing. There is a seeing which has the quality of penetrating what has been lost sight of through familiarity: what has been overlaid by the accretions of habit. Spontaneity, intuition, impulse, are sleeping in us, but not dead; never dead. Calculation on our part keeps them down, but it cannot keep them out. But spontaneous pleasure, even in so small a thing as looking at a stone in its complete and self-sufficient otherness, is one of the marvels of consciousness, and it should never be denied, but only submitted to. Here is some rain that someone saw once: really saw: lived:
Each place in the rain has a different speed, a different attraction; and whatever it falls on has its different sound. The whole thing lives with intensity; like a complicated mechanism, a shining machine as precise as it is dangerous.
Here is some snow: seen by somebody else:
It began softly to fall. We waited for it, with secret reasons, with secret connections. We had dreamed of it, and learned of it from the ashes in the hearth. We hoped that it would revive our powers of invention, which were almost dead after so many unworthy struggles. It fell, and united us in the most immaculate battle. It opened up space to a page so beautiful that the severe crows fell to earth, full of celestial subjects; and we ourselves croaked as they did, overwhelmed by the honor of sharing winter. In the gardens, the little woods and the woods full of hundred-foot trees, it whispered, “Jewelry, jewelry” and the birds flew through it unharmed. The trees and the biggest woodpiles let themselves go gently into that softness, and the grumbling of the oldest castles stopped, when the snow began humming like bees. Listen, I said to my love, in the snow, sometimes we are really innocent enough. Each person has only to taste the youth of snow on his lips, and he knows forever how to die without fleeing.
These are just two examples of what has been seen: of what there is to be seen, by them, by you and me, each in our vastly different way.
Pirandello said once that we are, in reality, the juxtaposition of infinite, blurred selves. It’s so, and we can’t unblur all the selves. But we can recognize that they exist, and above all, we can let them look at things, remembering always Goethe’s saying that, of all the things that we do, that we can do, the nicest of all is just to stand and look. From the moment that one pays continuous attention to anything, no matter what it is—a leaf, a nail—whatever is being regarded becomes a world in itself, mysterious, imposing, unspeakably magnified and inexhaustibly fertile in possibilities. Once you have begun to do this, you have entered into the kingdom of the Other, recognizing its otherness, and wanting to learn from it. The feeling that you get is that the world, and each aspect of it, is a mystery, is unfathomable, and that it glows against the background of universal darkness with a kind of strange and even magical light, both utterly meaningful and utterly meaningless, as the universe itself is.
With the ability to look closely, not for purpose, but with a kind of sympathy that expects nothing, that is just grateful for the opportunity of looking, and whatever peace we can make with the unconscious by recognizing and acknowledging its power over us and its needs, with these things, one can begin to come to one’s own terms with the world, and not simply accept the world that is thrust on one: one can begin to cease being bound hand and foot not only by those economic chains of whose existence we are forever becoming more and more aware, but also by chains of second-hand and second-rate ideas which are fundamentally unworthy of and irrelevant to one’s inner being as it actually exists. D. H. Lawrence, who said a lot of silly things and some that are profoundly true, said, “I believe that the highest virtue is to be happy, living in the greatest and most personal truth, and not submitting to the falsehoods of these times.”
The purpose I would urge, here, is simply, as much as one can, to try in one’s own way to foster a renewed awareness, perhaps just an awareness of directed attention, in accord with what one has come to feel necessary to one’s inner life. There are so many new acts of knowledge possible every day, every hour: acts in which the social surface is dissolved, and the individual has had, to use a religious term, a private audience with the world, with an aspect of the creation.
For the final question, the only one that really matters, is how we shall live. How shall our energies be directed? Most of us are busy earning a living, and this is often deadening enough; moreover, sometimes the more deadening the better; perhaps sensitivity on the job is sometimes a detriment, to some people, in some jobs. But no one need be dead all the time. One of my most obsessive images is that of someone who has done nothing but file orders all his life, raised a family thereby, been respectable, paid his bills and his taxes. The world says to him one day, “That’s all.” And the man says, “That can’t be all; I haven’t lived.” And life—or death—picks up the filing cabinet and shows it to the man and says, “Yes you have; it’s all in here.” A human existence, a unique one, and the only one there is ever going to be for one poor human creature, has gone into the metal drawers of a manufacturer of steel pipe. Certainly there are too many concessions one can make to utility, to survival, to acquisition. Paul Valéry once said, “How does it happen that men take their rest so soon? Why are they content to know and have so little of their real selves.”
Be aware of this when you look into the eyes of the next human being that you meet . . . or when you look at your own eyes in a mirror. They are strange eyes, the only ones like them in the universe, in all time, in all the cold voids of space: they are the eyes of a human being, and can be used for other things than sitting, powerless, before the TV set: strange eyes, alive, the eyes of a human being, one of the almost unknown ones.
This essay is excerpted from “Under the Social Surface,” a previously unpublished draft sourced from the James Dickey papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University. Courtesy of the James Dickey Estate, with special thanks to Casey Clabough.
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